WILLIAMSTOWN -- The Williams men's hockey team will almost assuredly be making a return trip to the top 10 in the national rankings Monday.
The Ephs were a staple in that elite group for much of the season until a surprising road loss to Johnson and Wales saw them slide from their No. 8 spot to No. 12 in the Jan. 13 rankings.
The good news after that loss: No. 3 Plattsburgh State (14-2-2) was coming to town a week later and bringing a big opportunity for a Williams team looking to prove itself.
The better news: The Ephs rattled off three second-period goals against the high-flying Cardinals and played shut-down defense to earn a 5-1 victory Saturday night.
"Today wasn't necessarily about rankings, but more just to prove to the rest of the country that we're a competitor," Williams goalie Sean Dougherty said.
Craig Kitto provided much of the Ephs' firepower, and the most timely goal of the game.
Off a defensive-zone faceoff win, Kitto broke down the ice. Defenseman Greg Johnson banked a pass hard off the boards and by the Plattsburgh defender to spring Kitto on a breakaway. The forward gained control a few feet in front of Cardinal goalie Mathieu Cadieux, made a quick move and found the back of the net with 57 seconds left in the second period to put Williams up 3-0.
"That's coach [Bill] Kangas' doing," Kitto said. "We've been drawing that up since the beginning of the year. It's worked a couple times, but we couldn't capitalize on the breakaway. It's good to finally pop one in the net there.
"You could kind of feel them get deflated. To go up 3-0 at the end of the period's huge. A three-goal lead's much better than a two-goal lead."
From there, it was all about holding on.
Williams successfully killed off a 5-on-3 Plattsburgh power play for more than 90 seconds and survived a barrage of 20 shots from the Cardinals in the final period. The shot total could have been much higher, but the Ephs were committed to staying in shooting lanes to give Dougherty as much help as possible.
"Our team really prides ourselves on d-zone play and blocking shots and helping Sean out," Kitto said. "Sean's a great goalie. He does more than enough for us and to get shots blocked is huge."
Kitto made the most exciting block when he slid in front of a defenseman's shot and kicked up his leg to deflect the puck out of play with a little more than 2 minutes to play.
"The defense did a great job keeping everybody to the outside. They didn't have too many really good quality scoring chances," Dougherty said. "They let me see the puck, so I wasn't getting screened too often. Combine those things, it's going to lead to success."
After Plattsburgh ended Dougherty's shutout bid with 1:58 left, Kitto was quickly rewarded for his defensive effort with a pair of empty net goals, giving him Williams' first hat trick since Jan. 22, 2010, when Alex Smigelski netted three in a 6-2 win over St. Anselm.
"It's just a great win, overall. That was a total team win for us," he said. "Everyone did everything they could to get the ‘W.' ... It was great teamwork."
Helping Dougherty was the least his team could do with the performance he was turning in. He made 35 saves on the night, with more than a handful off the highlight-reel variety.
There was the partial breakaway save on Michael Cassidy late in the first period with the score tied 0-0 and the right-pad stop he made on a Plattsburgh player parked on his doorstep early in the second.
None compared to his glove save on Kyle Hall midway through the third and Williams nearing the end of the 5-on-3 penalty kill.
The Plattsburgh forward camped himself to the right of the crease, corralled a loose puck and thought for sure he had broken through. Dougherty, all but down and out, reached back with his glove and kept Plattsburgh off the board.
Kangas wouldn't single this performance out as his best in the Purple and Gold, but wasn't shy about praising his netminder.
"They had some Grade A chances, Grade A-plus chances and he made some big saves," Kangas said. "He was strong, and square and fast. He was really sharp and you see the guys feed off it, too."
The Ephs head back into conference play Jan. 24 on the road at Colby and follow it up the next day with a game at Bowdoin. Williams tied Colby in the season opener and beat Bowdoin in its first trip through the conference schedule.
The Ephs are hoping a win over perennial power and nationally ranked Plattsburgh can power them through the rest of their NESCAC schedule.
"It's definitely a momentum builder," Johnston said. "We got a couple weekends here where we're in the NESCAC. They're going to be big. ... Big momentum shift."
"It was a good test," Dougherty said. "Hopefully we'll see a team like that toward the end of the season if we're lucky enough to make the NCAAs, so it was definitely good to face a real quality team like that."
The five-goal outburst was the third such game for the Ephs this season in 14 games. The other two also resulted in wins.
Williams sits atop the NESCAC standings at 6-0-2, two points ahead of Trinity (6-2). Amherst (7-3) also has 14 points, but it has played two more games.
The last time Plattsburgh allowed five goals was Jan. 5, 2013, against Castleton State. The Spartans won that game 5-2. Before that, Nov. 19, 2010 vs. Buffalo State. That was a 6-2 loss for Plattsburgh.
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